Saturday, 29 April 2017

A Friendly Alien on Authenticity

Like it or not, this is my national symbol. Woe.
A talented American writer I know went to an Edinburgh bookshop to ask the sales staff to stock her latest book. When she explained that she is a local author, she was sent to the person who runs the Scottish section. She was stunned when this personage wondered aloud why the writer had been sent to her. The salesperson then asked if her book had any Scottish content, and as the writer was still too stunned to reply, the salesperson said something like "Obviously not, or else you would say so."

In a welter of negative emotions, my colleague turned to Facebook to say she had had a tiny insight into what ethnic minorities must feel in Scotland, etc., and instead of groaning along in sympathy,I thought aloud about authenticity and cultural appropriation.

This American writer is a proven cultural asset to Scotland, by the way, and she loves Scotland so much she applied for, and received, British citizenship. Legally, she is British---more British than I, for example, as I haven't felt like forking out the £1,000 for the rights I, as a resident Canadian, already have. No doubt she would have applied for Scottish citizenship, if there were such a thing, but there isn't. And there's the rub. You can become British, but you can't apply for Scottishness. Either you are Scottish or you are not: you can't earn or buy your way in.

That said, "Scottish" is larger than an ethnic group.  One of Scotland's principal cultural movers and shakers is named Richard Demarco; he was born in Edinburgh of Italian parents. Nicola Benedetti is our most famous violinist. Peter Capaldi is our Scottish Doctor Who. The list of Italian Scots is long.

Then there are the Scotland-born Polish Scots, including playwright  Matthew Zajac, a number of my Polish-language classmates and a whole lot of other Scots whose Polish grandfathers were marooned here during or after World War 2.

There are also a relatively small number of South Asian Scots, including a Member of Scottish Parliament (Humza Yusaf) and a beloved celebrity chef (Tony Singh).

There are also a tiny number of black Scots and East Asian Scots (actor Katie Leung, who played Cho Chang in Harry Potter, comes at once to mind).

And what do Richard Demarco, Matthew Zajac, Humza Yusaf, Tony Singh and Katie Leung all have in common? They were all born in Scotland, they were all raised in Scotland and they all sound Scottish. They're Scottish.

I am not Scottish--which is quite obvious to any Scot whenever I open my mouth and speak. Ironically, in roots-obsessed Toronto, I would be considered "Scottish" by whoever followed up the usual question with, "But, no, where do you [meaning, actually, my 19th century immigrant ancestors] REALLY come from?" A Filipina-Canadian I know hates this question and thinks it is racist, but Canadians of Colour have asked it of lily-white me often enough. Frankly, it IS a stupid question, and I think the next time I'm asked it I will retort in my flat Margaret-Atwood honk, "Where do I sound like I'm REALLY from?"

That is important because although naturally we change a bit and grow a bit and become better or worse as we age, for good and for ill we have become who we are around the age our accent is set. I moved to Scotland in my late thirties; my accent isn't budging. Moreover, I am a product, not of Edinburgh's merchant schools or Dundee's comprehensives or of Glasgow's sectarian system, but of the Metropolitan of Toronto Separate School Board of the 1970s and 1980s, of the Girl Guides of Canada, of the Toronto pro-life movement, of Toronto multiculturalism, of being Catholic at the University of Toronto, and of being a Caker (from mangiacake) in Toronto and quite obviously a tête carrée while in achingly beautiful, contemptuous Quebec.

Incidentally, people who eat Nutella for breakfast have a heck of a nerve calling me a mangiacake. Neanche per idea! 

This is not to say that I don't love Scotland. Of course I love Scotland---and my Scottish husband,  too. In fact, I love Scotland too much to pretend that eight years in Scotland have rendered me just as Scottish as Benedict Ambrose, Peter Capaldi & Co. Too little, too late, people.

And I think this is important in the same way that Rachel Dolezal not actually being black is important. It's not like the Scots have had the most excellent time ever during the 20th, or any other, century. Benedict Ambrose lives comfortably now, but like other Scots over 30, he was shaped by the post-war collapse of heavy industry in Scotland, Thatcherism, English attitudes towards the Scots and their accents, Scottish poverty, Scottish sectarianism, and generally belonging to a minority of roughly 5 million in a country of roughly (when he was born) 56 million. And now that Scotland is suddenly a much nicer place to live--less obvious heroin addiction, more hipster cafés--it seems rather cheeky for adult foreigners to show up, stay a few years and then identify themselves as Scots.

No, I just don't buy it. Obviously it isn't very nice when Scots are frosty (or worse) to expats like me, the American writer and the born-and-raised-in-Poland Poles. Xenophobia is offensive. However, there are forms of cultural appropriation that also strike me as offensive. To say that Tony Singh--born and raised in Edinburgh--isn't "really" Scottish would be racist and contemptible. However, to say that expatriates who came to Scotland in our late twenties, thirties, forties....aren't actually Scots is just good sense.

BUT ALL THAT SAID I think the American writer's books belong in the "Scottish" section--or at least in an "Edinburgh" section of the bookshop. She IS a local writer, after all. She lives in Edinburgh, her latest book was written in Edinburgh, she's done amazing work for writers in Edinburgh. Contemporary Edinburgh teems with ex-pats. She's an Edinburgher, and Edinburgh is in Scotland. Of course, this is a very Canadian (or Torontonian) point of view.

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